I’m not panicking. I’m not panicking because I think we can explain away the last couple of matches. Am I huffing copium? Maybe, but hear me out.
It’s really easy to make sweeping statements about the rotten mentality of the club, the same players letting multiple managers down, how unacceptable it is to lose to lesser teams at home. It’s easy to boo at half-time, to be absolutely sick of the sight of Ben Davies and Harry Winks and even poor Matt Doherty (who has, astonishingly, now made 46 appearances for us). But Ben Davies was rejuvenated and playing genuinely really well in a back three including Eric Dier and Cristian Romero. Harry Winks put in some excellent performances in matches where we actually had possession of the ball. Doherty was even starting to look okay at times. Who are the players that let the previous managers down — Hugo Lloris? Son Heung-min? Harry Kane?
Southampton caught us off-guard. Ralph Hasenhüttl doesn’t do things by halves — it’s all or nothing. Typically they press themselves out of gas as much as they smother opposition teams. They expose themselves defensively in the same way that they expose their opponents. But, in this game they maintained their press, they got let off the hook a couple of times with our counter-attacks failing, and they were clinical when it mattered through James Ward-Prowse’s outstanding and deeply-specific skill not being managed at all well.
And Wolves? Well, I think I’m willing to put this mostly down to Hugo howlers. I realise that, even aside from Lloris’ blunders, we had a ropey first half. And I do think we were outnumbered in midfield until Conte brought on Dejan Kulusevski to play as a ten (and, thus, add another body to the midfield). But I think the second half performance was pretty good. And, had we not had those two comically poor moments in quick succession, I really believe it would have been a different game (albeit tricky against a stubborn Wolves defence).
If you take a step back, the level of performance and the data that those performances have delivered have improved significantly since Antonio Conte stepped in. And I strongly believe that will continue (maybe after the City game, lol). Kane is still under-performing his expected goals, but he has had 31 shots in his last six matches, which is highly encouraging. He is playing very well.
I’m not happy with how the last week has gone. I’m also, if I’m honest, completely taken aback by it — I had these down as two home wins. I was genuinely so adamant that we’d stride towards fourth, with those six points very much included in my thinking. But I don’t think we need to tear anything up and start again, I don’t think top four is off the table (far from it, I still feel pretty confident about our chances) and I definitely don’t think our squad is useless.
I do think, though, that Conte has made some mistakes. I’ve been a little obsessive about my belief that 3-5-2 suits us best (based, mainly, upon Liverpool and Leicester). And I really believe that the continuing selection of Davinson Sánchez has hurt us, previously primarily for his inability to participate effectively in build-up, but in these last two his defending was also particularly poor. My reading of the post-Wolves press conference was that Conte is also coming round to this way of thinking — when asked about Joe Rodon, he said “But in this moment maybe I make mistakes to pick different players maybe. Maybe. My evaluation is to try to put on the pitch the best players at the moment.” I believe that Rodon is significantly better in possession than Sánchez.
Dier’s return should mean that Cuti Romero moves back out to the right centre-back role which should, in turn, help Emerson Royal, who also really struggled against Southampton, but who I generally think is okay. Oliver Skipp should hopefully be back soon but, even if he’s not, I think there are decent enough combinations from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Rodrigo Bentancur and Harry Winks (and I’m not against Dejan Kulusevski playing in midfield in a 3-5-2).
I’d love to see us switch to 3-5-2. I’d love for Sánchez to only be used in an emergency for the rest of the season. I think everything’s going to be fine. But, if the next three don’t go so well, I’ll pop back in March to apologise for spreading my copium.